Ariel Sharon was an Israeli general and politician who served as the 11th prime minister of Israel (2001 – 2006).
His public and political life was marked by brilliant and controversial military achievements and political policies. Before entering politics, Sharon had a long military career, first serving for the Haganah and then its successor, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), for the next 26 years, although on and off. He was IDF’s commander upon its establishment and was one of the participants in the first Arab-Israeli war. Sharon helped found the right-wing Likud party, where he had been a member for 28 years. He also served as Likud’s chairman from 1999 to 2005. He was elected prime minister in 2001 and held this position until he suffered a stroke in 2006.
Early life and military career
Ariel Sharon was born Ariel Scheinermann on February 26, 1928 in Kfar Malal, an agricultural moshav in Mandatory Palestine (now in Israel). His parents, Shmuel and Vera Scheinermann, had first met at a university in today’s Tbilisi, Georgia, where they both studied. They immigrated to Mandatory Palestine in 1922 in the wake of the rising persecution in Communist Russia.
Growing up in a Russian family, Scheinermann learned to speak Russian fluently, apart from Hebrew. His early years were marked by experiences growing up in a secular, socialist community. Even during his prepubescent years, he began to actively take part in several youth and student organizations. As a teenager, he was already patrolling the moshav every night along with his comrades.
In 1942, when Scheinermann was only 14, he joined the Haganah; five years later, he became a full-fledged soldier. In 1948, Sharon participated in the first battle of Latrun as a junior officer. He headed a platoon of the 32nd Battalion. When the Jordanian Arab Legion troops routed the Israelis, Scheinermann’s platoon was destroyed. He was shot in the groin, foot, and stomach. He later said, recalling the experience, that he was “eaten up by despair and the shame of the defeat.”
After recovering from his injuries, Scheinermann resumed command of his patrol unit. Around this time, Israel’s founding father and first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, Hebraized Scheinermann’s name into “Sharon.”
Sharon rose to a company commander of the IDF’s Golani Brigade in 1949. The following year, he rose his ranks by becoming an intelligence officer for Central Command. Afterward, he took a break to start his studies in history and Oriental culture at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
In July 1953, Sharon returned to active military service as the founder and commander of the new Unit 101, the IDF’s special forces tasked to conduct reprisal operations against Jordanian border villages in response to the attacks by the Palestinian fedayeen, or “freedom fighters.” The following October, Sharon and his Unit 101 led the attacks in the village of Qibyeh, which left 69 civilians dead, many of them women and children. These attacks, which were carried out in retaliation for a terror attack on Tirat Yehuda, drew condemnation from both Israelis and the international community.
Sharon was appointed commander of the paratroop brigade, the Unit 2020 (Hativat Tzanchanim), during the 1956 Suez War and helped to form its tactics and reputation. During their troops’ campaign in Sinai, Sharon led another controversial operation to conquer Sinai’s Mitla Pass, defying orders from his superiors. It resulted in heavy Israeli casualties.
The Mitla incident would hinder Sharon’s military career for several years. In the meantime, the IDF sent Sharon to study at the Camberley Staff College in the United Kingdom. In 1958 Sharon was appointed Infantry Brigade Commander and later, commander of the IDF’s training school. He then received a law degree from Tel Aviv University.
But when Yitzhak Rabin became IDF’s Chief of General Staff in 1964, Sharon rose to the ranks again, becoming Chief of Staff of the Northern Command. In 1966 he was appointed Head of the Army Training Department.
During the 1967 Six-Day War, Sharon (who was by then a major general) commanded one of the three armored divisions that operated against Egypt. After the Israeli air force bombarded most Egyptian warplanes on ground on the first day of the war, the Israeli ground forces swept across the Sinai once again, where they met little opposition or difficulty. For his efforts, Sharon was hailed as a new military hero. In 1969 he was appointed Head of the Southern Command Staff.
Following Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, the “War of Attrition” in the Suez Canal began. Sharon opposed the construction of Israeli fortifications along the banks of the Suez Canal, famously known as the Bar-Lev Line. Instead, he favored a more mobile and activist strategy against Egyptian assault, but he was overruled. As head of the Southern Command Staff, Sharon refused to yield to Egypt during the war.
Sharon retired from the military in August 1973 but was called back to reserve service during the Yom Kippur War the following October to command another armored division. He was involved in a controversial operation where he led a decisive Israeli counterattack against Egypt in the Suez Canal at the outset of the war. Again, he did this in defiance of his superiors’ orders. But Israel’s Pyrrhic victory in the war silenced his critics.
Following his retirement from the army, Sharon joined the Liberal Party and helped found the right-wing Likud Party by merging Liberal Party and the conservative Herut party. In December 1973, he was elected to the Knesset for the Likud.
However, he resigned from his post and served as Security Adviser to Prime Minister Rabin. In 1977 he formed the right-wing Shlomtzion party prior to the Knesset elections that year. It immediately merged into Likud after the new Knesset term started, this time led by Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who also happened to be Likud’s co-founder. Sharon was appointed Minister of Agriculture in Begin’s first government.
During his tenure as agriculture minister, Sharon approved the construction of Israeli settlements in occupied territories. Like most Israelis, Sharon opposed the creation of a Palestinian state. He contended that Jordan – with its 60% to 70% Palestinian population – might adequately meet the Palestinians’ demand for self-determination.
The 1982 Lebanon War
Sharon ended his post as minister of agriculture in 1981; later that year, Begin appointed him as Minister of Defense.
The assassination attempt on Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom, Shlomo Argov, provoked Sharon to launch an invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Initially known as Operation Peace for Galilee, the operation was later known as the 1982 Lebanon War.
The war caused the destruction of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) terrorist infrastructure in Lebanon, forcing the PLO and its leader, Yasser Arafat, into exile in Tunis. However, the war brought worldwide condemnation to Israel due to the needless loss of life in many operations. One of them is the infamous Sabra and Shatila massacre, where 460 to 3,500 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians were killed.
The Kahan Commission, established to investigate the massacre, found Sharon to bear responsibility for the bloodshed, citing his failure to protect the civilians in Beirut. At the time, the Lebanese capital was under Israeli control. The Kahan Commission declared Sharon unfit to lead as Israel’s defense minister, while his Arab enemies declared him the “butcher of Beirut.” Sharon reluctantly resigned from his post in February 1983.
Return to government and politics
Although it seemed like his resignation as defense minister marked the end of Sharon’s political career, he was soon back to government service again. He served as Minister of Industry, Trade, and Labor (1984 – 1990) under the governments of Prime Ministers Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir. Then, he served as Minister of Housing in Construction (1990 – 1992) under Prime Minister Shamir.
Under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s newly formed government in 1996, Sharon was appointed Minister of Energy and Water Resources, a position he held for three years. In 1998, Sharon was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs. In this capacity, Sharon led the permanent status negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. He was an important figure in the Wye River negotiations. He also met with American, European, Palestinian, and Arab leaders to further the peace process. At the same time, he sought to advance the building of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Following Netanyahu’s defeat to Ehud Barak in the 1999 Prime Ministerial elections and his resignation as chairman of Likud, Sharon served as the party’s interim chairman.
However, controversy hounded Sharon once again. In 2000, he visited Jerusalem’s Temple Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount) compound, which has long been considered a sacred place for both Jews and Muslims. During his visit, Sharon insisted that the compound should remain perpetually under Israeli control. His remark outraged the Palestinians, triggering what would be the Second Intifada. The incident now brought the Israeli-Palestinian talks (Oslo peace process), which had already been stalled, to a complete halt. It also brought about the fall of his rival Barak, who eventually resigned from his post as Prime Minister.
As Prime Minister
Following Barak’s resignation, a special election was held in February 2001. Sharon defeated Barak, 62% to 38% respectively, and was elected to office.
As Prime Minister, Sharon directed Israel’s unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip from 2004 to 2005. The policy meant the complete withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers and the dismantlement of the all the settlements in the area. It was viewed by some as his acceptance of some form of a Palestinian state and was criticized by many of his former supporters and his fellow “Likudniks.” However, some political pundits saw Sharon’s unexpected move as tactical opportunism instead of reflecting a fundamental change in outlook.
Resignation from Likud and the establishment of Kadima; illness, incapacitation, and death
In November 2005, Sharon left Likud and formed a new party, the centrist Kadima. He outlined his goals for his new party – among them, to closely pattern a US-backed plan for peace with the Palestinians. Sharon planned to clean Israel out of most of the West Bank in a series of unilateral withdrawals. He also insisted that Palestinian terrorist groups should be disarmed and dismantled.
The following December, he suffered a minor stroke and spent two days in the hospital. The doctors declared that the stroke would not cause any irreparable brain damage. They advised Sharon to have bed rest in preparation for a scheduled cardiac catheterization. But instead of resting, he immediately returned to work. As a result, he suffered another stroke in January 2006 – and this time, it was a more serious one.
Sharon suffered a massive brain hemorrhage, which led to extensive cerebral bleeding. Although surgeons managed to stop the bleeding, they could not prevent him from falling into a coma. Ehud Olmert stepped in as acting Prime Minister while Sharon technically remained in office. After eight years in a vegetative state, Sharon died on January 11, 2014.